Amid growing violence in the eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Zoo Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has pulled back most of its researchers and support staff in the region.
Although a $1 million donation in March by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner allowed the group to expand its conservation efforts in the Congo, the foundation has temporarily halted jungle expeditions and sent home its local trackers due to the presence of rebel fighters in the area.
“It’s become terribly difficult in the area [since May],” Erika Archibald, the communications director for the Fossey Fund, told GlobalAtlanta. “It’s basically fallen back into civil war.”
Dr. Archibald said the group did not know when it would resume full operations in eastern Congo, although recent indications from the official Congolese military make her think it may soon become safe again.
In response to a noted spike of violence in the area, the U.S. State Department announced July 21 it suspended $200,000 worth of military aid to Rwanda amid allegations that the country has been supporting Congolese rebels in eastern DRC, including members of the violent March 23 or M23 Movement.
A splinter organization of the former political militia group National Congress for the Defence of the People, which merged March 23, 2009, with the Congolese government, M23 has reportedly taken hold of several towns in the North Kivu Province, including Rumangabo.
A small mountain village, Rumangabo is also the location of Congo’s Virunga National Park, the oldest of its kind in Africa and home to more than a quarter of the world’s endangered mountain gorilla population.
While the Fossey Fund has decided to temporarily withdraw from the mission funded by Mr. Turner, some in Virunga have vowed to stay put.
“If they don’t want that money anymore, maybe we should let Ted [Turner] know that we do,” LuAnne Cadd, communications officer for the Virunga National Park in the DRC, told GlobalAtlanta by email from the area.
“We work here, and we’re not going anywhere, even with our headquarters in the middle of a battlefield right now,” Ms. Cadd continued.
However, non-essential staff have been forced to evacuate the park four times since April, although militia forces have allowed rangers to temporarily return to get a census of gorillas still remaining in the area, Ms Cadd said. The park was scheduled to relaunch its gorilla-monitoring operations July 24, but a flair-up of fighting has delayed the mission.
“You don’t come to Congo without knowing there are risks,” Ms. Cadd said. “That goes for both organizations and individuals. Many groups know there’s a job that needs to be done, and they do it despite the dangers, although all have plans in place to avoid injury or death to their staff as much as possible.”
Local organizations like HEAL Africa, a Congolese-led nonprofit dedicated to public health and women’s empowerment, have seen both direct and indirect impacts of the fighting on international work in the area.
There’s a correlation between fighting and increases in the amount of people they treat for grievous wounds, gender-based violence and general trauma, said Bridget Nolan, the HEAL Africa’s director of communications and partnership development.
“I’d say the fighting there hugely affects our work,” Ms. Nolan said. “And not only does it negatively affect the quality of life for the people there, but it also harms the environment and animals.”
The withdrawal of the Fossey Fund from the DRC comes at a time when the organization has seen some progress in its research of young gorillas.
For the first time ever, field staff of the Fossey Fund announced last week they observed several young gorillas dismantling traps set by poachers in Rwanda.
Although adult gorillas have been observed dismantling traps in the past, the reported sighting last week represents an important demonstration of “impressive cognitive skill” among younger gorillas, said Veronica Vecellio, gorilla program coordinator at the foundation’s Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda, in a news release.
Since the beginning of the year, three gorillas monitored by the group have been caught in traps, one fatally. The group monitors about 120 gorillas in Rwanda or about one-third of the total gorillas in the area.
Founded in 1978 as the Digit Fund in memory of Dian Fossey’s favorite gorilla, Digit, the renamed Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International operates the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda.
For more information on the Fossey Foundation’s work in the Congo and for video interviews of its staff, click here.